Our Illiterate Students?

I’ve just finished reading Will Richardson’s TED book Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere. It’s a very quick but insightful read that drives home the message that we need to reform our education system (like most professional texts this too refers to the public system). According to Richardson, we live in a world of “information abundance”, whereas our education system is based on a model of “information scarcity”.

The text’s premise, it’s call for change, is not new. Yet one message in particular resonated with me: the author’s statement that our students are illiterate. In the basic, traditional sense, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. Today, however, “literacy” refers to much more.  Certainly, by the time our kids graduate, they all know to read and write. But Richardson is referring to a NCTE policy paper published in 2008, “The Definition of 21st Century Literacies”. In this paper, the NCTE expands literacy standards for students but also teachers, with an agenda to:

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities by these complex environments

To survive in today’s information rich environment, much more than traditional literacy is necessary. According to Richardson, in this sense, more than 80 percent of students graduating from private, public, parochial, and home schools are “illiterate” in RIchardson’s terms; according to the NCTE’s vice president, this figure is “more like 90 percent”.

So as I was reading, I could not help but think of the education my own children are currently receiving as 8th and 11th graders in the A-rated St. Johns County, Florida, public school system. According to Richardson, they are illiterate. In school, they are taught a curriculum “that’s growing increasingly irrelevant to today’s kids”, being exposed to one “outmoded” standardized test after another. It’s a system that requires students to be able to regurgitate facts while stifling their growth as engaged, self-motivated critical thinkers.

At the private K-8 day school, where I work,, many of the lessons spearheaded over the past few years fit right into this larger agenda.: technology integration, global collaboration.  As a librarian, my ambition for my school library is to make it a central resource for empowering these efforts.  Richardson points to the increasing challenges educators face amid the changing dynamic of “information abundance.”  As he puts it:

“Teachers need to be great at asking questions and astute at managing the different paths to learning that each child creates. They must guide students to pursue projects of value and help them connect their interests to the required standards. And they have to be participants and models in the learning process.”


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